Washington — Scientists have created a new kind of artificial cornea, inserting a sliver of collagen into the eye that coaxes its own natural corneal cells to regrow and restore vision.
It worked in a first-stage study of 10 patients in Sweden, researchers reported Wednesday. And while larger studies are needed, it’s a step toward developing an alternative to standard cornea transplants that aren’t available in much of the world because of a shortage of donated corneas.
“This is the first time that we’ve been able to regenerate somebody’s cornea,” said Dr. May Griffith, senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada and a professor of regenerative medicine at Linkoping University in Sweden.
Vision depends on a healthy cornea, the film-like covering of the eye’s surface that helps it focus light. Corneas are fragile, easily harmed by injury or infection, and about 42,000 people in the U.S. receive transplanted corneas every year. While that’s considered an adequate supply in this country, donated corneas aren’t available in many countries for the estimated 10 million people worldwide with corneal blindness. Transplants also bring risk of rejection. In addition, researchers also are working to improve plastic-like artificial corneas.
The new work, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, is a bioartificial cornea — an attempt to use the same natural substances that make up a real cornea to induce healing.
“I characterize this work as a major advance in the direction that we need to go,” said Dr. Alan Carlson, cornea transplant chief at Duke University’s eye center, who wasn’t involved in the research. To “make this mimic donor tissue to the extent that your own cells ultimately become incorporated in this tissue, I think that’s the most exciting aspect.”